By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday raised questions about the scope of a Massachusetts law that ensures access for patients at clinics that perform abortions.
Anti-abortion protesters have challenged the law, saying it violated their freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing them from standing on the sidewalk and speaking to those entering clinics.
A majority of the justices at times expressed concerns during a one-hour argument before the high court that the blanket 35-feet (11-meter) no-entry zone around clinics is overly broad.
One of the main concerns raised by justices was that the 2007 law does nothing to distinguish between protesters seeking to disrupt a clinic's work and people who say they wish to quietly counsel women and try to persuade them not to have abortions.
It is not clear if the court would have the votes to go further than striking down the Massachusetts law and possibly overturn a 2000 Supreme Court precedent that upheld a similar buffer-zone law in Colorado.
Among those critical of the Massachusetts law was Justice Elena Kagan, from the liberal wing of the court. At one point she noted that the Massachusetts law "does have its problems." Her main concern appeared to be the 35-feet length, which she seemed to think was too broad.
The law was enacted in part because of safety concerns highlighted by violent acts committed against abortion providers in the past. In 1994, two abortion clinic workers were killed outside a clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The case specifically concerns people who want to protest outside three Planned Parenthood facilities that offer abortions in addition to other health services for women in Boston, Springfield and Worcester.
The protesters have urged the Supreme Court to consider overturning its 2000 decision, Hill v. Colorado, that upheld a similar law in Colorado.
Two other states, Montana and Colorado, have similar laws. Municipal ordnances and court injunctions have also been used in various states to create similar buffer zones.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
The case is McCullen v. Coakley, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1168.
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